The beauty of Botticelli: Tracing the charm behind the Renaissance artist’s portraits

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Updated: February 07, 2021 8:10 AM

Botticelli’s 'Primavera' and the 'Birth of Venus' evoke classical allegories and biblical themes, which were an ideal representation of 15th-century florentine culture.

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding A RoundelSandro Botticelli's 15th-century painting called "Young Man Holding a Roundel" is displayed at Sotheby's on Sept. 23, 2020, in New York. The painting will go on auction next year and art watchers will be seeing if it fetches more than its eye-watering $80 million estimate, despite the pandemic. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Sandro Botticelli’s painting titled Young Man Holding a Roundel is one of the most valuable portraits of any era ever sold. Interestingly, it was just one of three portraits left in private hands by the leading artist of the Italian Renaissance, known to many for his famous paintings Primavera and The Birth of Venus.

Among the classics and one of the finest portraits ever painted by the Renaissance master, Young Man Holding a Roundel, a painting in tempera, was sold recently at Sotheby’s for a record $92.2 million. It was also the first major auction event of 2021, where the painting saw transatlantic bidding between Sotheby’s representatives in NewYork and London.

Botticelli’s painting now stands alongside Francis Bacon’s Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus as the second work to have surpassed $80million at auction since Sotheby’s pioneered the new live-streamed auction format around seven months ago.

What is fascinating is that Botticelli was one of the first creators of some of the most arresting and penetrating portraits in the history of western art. “This is not only an exceptional painting, but it is also the epitome of beauty, and of a moment when so much of our western civilisation began,” says Christopher Apostle, head of Sotheby’s old masters painting department, New York.

The charm and spirit of the Renaissance has been aptly characterised for modern viewers throughout Botticelli’s artworks. For instance, his iconic works Primavera, The Birth of Venus and The Cestello Annunciation evoke classical allegories and Biblical themes, which were an ideal visual representation of 15th-century Florentine culture. Many figures depict striking beauty and quality of the portrait in sombre expressions.

“As fresh today as when he was painted 550 years ago, Botticelli’s Young Man has cast his spell over everyone who has seen him. While the price achieved is the second-highest ever for an Old Master painting, this is a work that transcends time and categories. Now we really do know the price of beauty,” adds George Wachter, Sotheby’s co-chairman of old master paintings worldwide.

Most of Botticelli’s portraits had human figures and these were the prominent centre of his artworks. The men and women in the Florentine Renaissance lived in a very different world, where men managed businesses and women looked after the domestic front. For instance, the Young Man, from about 1475, is an arresting masterpiece of the young man, a bust-length portrait of a noble sitter, who is believed to be a member of the powerful Medici family that ruled the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. Botticelli has shown his sitter holding a small roundel in his hand depicting a saint and is believed to be one of the first artists to abandon the tradition of depicting sitters in profile. The noble holds a large medallion of an old man with a long, grey beard, perhaps a family patron saint raising his hand in blessing.

Since the Renaissance was associated with an era that embarked on a major change in depicting subjects with unique insight—decades before Leonardo da Vinci painted his enduring Mona Lisa—the graphics, bold colours and humanistic virtues of notable individuals in early Italy are deftly captured in a revolutionary style.

His classical myths portrayed in The Birth of Venus became popular among the educated classes. A skillfully adaptive version of a Venus emerging from these an on a shell guided to the shore by flying wind gods is a symbolic image of the birth of beauty in the world.

“In the popular imagination, no other painter evokes the golden age of the Florentine Renaissance more powerfully than Botticelli. His nymphs, goddesses, Madonnas and saints populate our imagination as representatives of the rebirth of science, art and literature in a city that laid the foundation for the modern world. His portraits most clearly open a window on to the world of Renaissance Florence— never more so than in Young Man Holding a Roundel, a painting that encapsulates the intellectual, courtly and humanistic virtues that define the Italian Renaissance,” adds Apostle.

The recently auctioned work is one of the most significant portraits of any period ever to appear at auction—alongside Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II(sold in 2006 for $87.9 million) and Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet(soldin1990for$82.5million), says Sotheby’s website

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